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Is global ASF reporting fit for purpose?

Continued uncertainty over true number of pig disease outbreaks in Asia

African Swine Fever (ASF) continues to spread in Asia but there is still no official confirmation that the disease has reached either Thailand or Indonesia.

Almost two months have passed since pig deaths in northern Thailand sparked fears that ASF may have entered the country via illegal movements of pigs from Myanmar. This was quickly refuted by Thai authorities, who nevertheless ramped up measures to address the threat of disease.

Then in early November, Reuters quoted an Indonesian Agriculture Ministry official as saying tests on sick pigs in North Sumatra showed that some were infected with Classical Swine Fever (CSF) while others had ASF.

Three weeks on and the Indonesian Agriculture Ministry has still not officially confirmed that this is the case. In its latest weekly update on ASF, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) again refers to unconfirmed reports of swine deaths and says it is liaising with Indonesia to ‘confirm the cause and explore the needs’.

International organizations have repeatedly stressed the importance of being transparent over new outbreaks so that suitable control measures can quickly be put in place.

It remains to be seen if authorities are doing all they can to comply with this advice or are instead opting to delay reporting or cover up cases altogether. Of course, it could also be the case that some journalists may have been too hasty in their reporting of suspected ASF cases.

Questions over Belarus

So based on developments over the past decade, which is the most likely scenario?

It is almost certainly the case that some countries opt to underreport ASF outbreaks. Belarus for example is surrounded by countries where ASF is present and infected wild boar have regularly been found close to the Belarusian border in countries such as Poland, Ukraine and Latvia.

At the same time, Russia has often found traces of the ASF virus in pork products imported from Belarus. Despite this, only four cases in Belarus have ever been reported to the World Organization for Animal Health (all in 2013) and authorities in Russia have repeatedly accused their Belarusian counterparts of failing to be transparent on the issue.

China too is widely believed to have underreported the true number of ASF cases in the country. Given the importance of pork to Chinese consumers, this may be driven by domestic pressures and the need to keep a lid on tensions over rising prices.

There would certainly be good financial reasons why a country might opt to cover up isolated cases of ASF. A recent report from Thailand’s Department for Livestock Development said an outbreak could cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars. While some experts are suspicious, there is no firm evidence that the disease has appeared in Thailand however – and the department last week insisted the country is still free of the disease.

Although the Indonesian pork industry is smaller, the country’s agriculture ministry last week issued similar warnings over the threat to pig producers and the tourism industry. Reporting on a November 14 meeting, the ministry said the country is still free of the disease but faces a growing threat because of the rapid spread of ASF in Asia.

Misleading headlines

On the other side of the coin, some recurrent failings are apparent in the way ASF is reported by the mainstream media.

The first is a tendency to confuse ASF with CSF or to use the headline ‘Swine Fever’ or even worse ‘Swine Flu’, without specifying exactly which disease has been found. The second is to assert that ASF has definitely been found before samples of sick pigs have been fully tested.

Another example is when dead pigs are washed up on beaches or when infected items are seized at ports. These events often trigger misleading news reports that ASF is now present – even though no animals born or raised in the country have ever been found with the disease.

Taiwan is a case in point, as ASF was recently found in pigs washed up on beaches. These were most likely to have come from mainland China, where farmers have previously been found to have thrown diseased animals into rivers.

Dead pigs were recently also found washed up on a beach on a Danish island. Danish authorities opted to dispose of the animals without testing them for ASF. This avoided the need to report any potentially positive findings, which in turn might have led some countries to impose unnecessary restrictions on trade.

One thing that cannot be disputed however, is that countries would have less motivation to cover up isolated cases if major trade partners stuck to internationally accepted guidelines on regionalisation.

This would mean isolated cases would only lead to bans on trade from limited geographical areas rather than entire countries. This in turn would encourage national authorities to quickly report outbreaks without risking the closure of key pork export markets and the loss of sales worth millions or even billions of dollars.

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